PART I | PART II | PART III | PART IV
Chris took a deep breath and continued, "He told me to look for him. He mentioned a river . . .Pausing again, Larabee concentrated, and then cried out,
"My shack. He's at my shack!"
Buck knelt beside his friend. Fever and exhaustion had drawn tight the flesh over the bones of Chris' face so that he looked unnaturally older. There was also anguish and a hint of confusion in his usually steady green eyes. Knowing the strange link his two friends shared Wilmington felt more frightened than ever.
"Don't worry Chris, I'll bring him back," Buck said firmly, then rose to his feet and headed to the door.
He rode out of town, allowing his powerful horse to choose its own speed.
It was almost dark when Wilmington entered the valley where Chris' place lay hidden. The storm that had raged over the plain for the past half-hour abated. Lightening beamed harmlessly in the distance. Crossing the meadow, he headed for the quiet pool behind Larabee's house that the river formed as it's waters slowed their run. Dismounting, Buck looked over the peaceful landscape, his eyes searching the banks of the river pool.
"Well, I'll be dammed!" he breathed out as a broad smile lit up his face. There, lying on the grass not far from the pool was the tracker, just like Larabee's dream had told him.
Vins body was plastered with mud and leaves but, as Buck approached and leaned over him, he could see the slow raise and fall of the slender chest. He lightly slapped the Texans slack jaw. Vin! he called out. Vin!" Cmon, boy, wake up!
Vin moaned weakly and his eyelashes fluttered open. There was a glassy look in his wide, blue eyes.
Buck klin', he whispered.
"In the flesh, boy," Wilmington said, brushing back the damp locks from Vin's cheek. Buck frowned, noticing that the tracker was shivering although his skin was hot to the touch. This isn't good, he thought, as he carefully picked up the Texan and carried him to Chris' shack. Lowering Vin onto the bed, the young man lay moaning and mumbling deliriously.
Opening the drawer near the bed, Wilmington retrieved the dark bottle of laudanum and some clean bandages, and then bent again over his friend.
"Vin? Vin, can you hear me?"
Vin stared sluggishly at him, "Where? he slurred.
"It's okay, Vin. We're at Chris' place."
"Chris is fine, Vin. He sent me here to fetch you. Lay still now. I need to take a look at you and it might hurt some," the scoundrel soothed and uncorked the bottle, holding it to Tanner's mouth. "Much as you can take, Vin,"
No!" Vin groused, firmly shutting his lips.
"C'mon, Vin. It'll kill the pain and might put you out."
The Texan shook slowly his head back and forth and again opened his mouth to protest. With a quick movement, Buck stuck the bottleneck between the slightly parted lips.
"Okay, Vin, just take a small swallow," he urged.
There was no more strength left to fight back in his weary body, so Vin complied.
"Good boy," Buck said, smiling. He hated to push the tracker, but knew it was for his own good.
Slowly, Vins twitching, exhausted body relaxed and he drifted into a deep drug-induced slumber.
Buck sighed and headed for the stove. Returning with some water in a basin, he started to clean up the young man, examining his injuries in the process. Vin's lithe body was marred with scrapes from rocks in the river, plus a multitude of cuts, and old bruises that stood out against the pale skin. Buck figured Vin had some cracked or busted ribs, too, which would be the cause of his labored breathing. Scooting down the left side, the ladies' man shuddered when he saw the mark of the brand. It was red, swollen and puffy. Tentatively, he touched it and a twinge of pain crossed Vin's face, but, thankfully, he didn't wake up.
After having tended the best he could to the sharpshooter's many wounds, Buck covered him with a light blanket. Then he sat back, watched and waited.
Slumping in the uncomfortable chair, Wilmington dozed off and on. He was startled awake by a strange rattling noise outside. The light streaming in the window told him it was morning. Taking a quick glance at the bed, he saw that Vin was huddled under the covers, snoring faintly. Slowly taking his gun from his holster, he stepped outside onto the porch.
A wagon was in front of the house, Larabee climbing down from it with Nathan's help and after him, came Nettie.
Chris! Nettie! What the hell?" Buck stuttered in surprise.
Well, Buck, arent you happy to see us? Larabee asked.
"Of course I am, but how come you let 'im outta bed, Nathan?"
"I couldn't refuse. You know . . . I was outnumbered anyway," Nathan explained, smiling, placing a steadying hand on his patient's back.
With Nettie leading the way, the trio headed for the shack.
At the door, Buck turned and looked as Larabee moved unsteadily to step up, grabbing at the porch support.
"Need a hand there, Chris?" he asked, concern in his voice.
The gunslinger didn't argue, but grabbed one of his friend's broad shoulders. He felt lightheaded and needed the help since the ground under his feet seemed to be pitching and tossing.
Entering the house, Buck guided his weary friend to the table. Helping the man to sit, he had Chris put his injured leg up on another chair. With a grateful smile, Chris relaxed back and closed his eyes.
Nathan bent over the gunslinger and felt his pulse, then nodded. "Rest for a spell, Chris," he said gently. "Me and Miz Nettie will take care of Vin." Then he turned and entered the bedroom, the spirited old woman at his heels.
+ + + + + + +
Too antsy to sit, Buck paced and watched his good friend closely.
"Tell me what happened?" Chris asked after a while.
"I found Vin on the bank back of the house here. He was battered, feverish and drenched. He came to for a little bit, but didn't say much. They beat him up good, Chris," Buck said, and then bit his lips. He couldn't tell Chris about the branding.
Ill kill Royal with my bare hands for what he did to him," Chris growled.
"No, Mr. Larabee. Let the Judge handle him," Nettie's voice said as she came into the room. "Vin has got proof against him as well as I have," she added, a frown creasing her face.
How is he?" Chris asked, giving a nod to let her know he agreed with her.
Sore and in pain but hiding it, you know him, she said with a sad smile, then straightened herself. Ill put a pot of coffee on and youll have a real breakfast. I brought a couple of pies and some fresh baked biscuits." And with that, she walked past them, going over to the stove.
Silence fell in the room. Chris seemed to doze off and on, but he woke when Nathan came out of the bedroom with a bundle of sodden bandages. Sitting on a chair next to the gunslinger, the healer's handsome face was distorted with apprehension.
"How's he doin', Nathan," Chris asked softly, seeing the look on the man's face.
"Well, Chris, for what he's endured, it would have killed a lesser man, but we all know survival skills seem to be Vin's particular specialty, as Ezra would say. He's in pretty bad shape, but nothing he can't handle. Nathan gave him a nod, "He's asked for you."
"Thanks, Nathan," Chris said as he eased himself to his feet and made his way into the bedroom.
Vin was lying on his back, covers pulled to his waist. One slender arm was bent protectively over the bandage on his ribs. Sweat glistened on his skin. Although he lay still, his body heaved at every breath.
Chris sat on the edge of the bed. "Vin, its me, Chris," he said softly.
Bout time ya showed up, cowboy, the tracker drawled slowly, opening his blue eyes bright with fever.
Larabee grabbed Vin's warm hand and held onto it. Tanner seemed so vulnerable. He had to resist sheltering him in his arms. "Here I am, pard," he murmured.
"Told me you were sick'n outta yer mind," Vin breathed, "knew it weren't true." Then he chuckled softly, "I fooled 'em."
What do you mean?" Chris asked, puzzled.
"I . . . played . . . possum . . ." he chuckled again then gasped as a coughing fit racked his body. He wrapped his arms around his chest, trying to catch his breath.
"Easy, Vin, easy now," Chris soothed. "Let's get you propped up some." He moved his hands behind Vin's shoulders, trying to slide him up, but found he just didn't have the strength. He called out to Nathan and Buck to give him some help.
The two came to his rescue and between them; they settled the Texan with his head raised and his arms free.
Nettie entered the room carrying a tray. Putting it on the table, she walked over to Vin, leaned down and looked fondly at him. "Well, son, you gave us quite a scare," she told him, caressing his sweaty forehead, with her hand, in a motherly fashion.
I missed ya, Miz Nettie, Vin said, blushing as a shy smile spread on his fine features.
Ive brought you some breakfast. Do you feel like eating something, son? She asked cheerfully.
I knew ya were cookin. Smelled yer pancakes. I could use a couple of em and a cup of coffee, the Texan said hopefully.
Its oatmeal and milk for you," Nathan said firmly.
Hell, Nate, aint a baby!" Vin groused, scowling.
Nettie put the tray with a bowl on his lap. He tasted and murmured, "Mm, might be worse, and, casting a pleading glance to the healer, he drawled softly, "What bout a couple of biscuits 'n some honey ta go with it? Im starvin!
Jackson had to think about that. A man with a fever had to watch what he ate, but Tanner seemed so gaunt and he had lost a lot of blood. Besides, looking into those blue eyes made his decision easier, and he gave in. "Miz Nettie, would you mind bringing one biscuit and a little bit of honey in here for him?" he asked, turning to the woman.
Yer all heart, Nate!" the Texan teased, rolling his eyes.
When Nettie brought him a little pot with the honey, he plunged the biscuit in it, pulled it out dripping with the amber liquid, and then gulped it down, licking his lips with a satisfied grin. Finally, he put five spoonfuls into his oatmeal, and then he paused and looked up at his smirking friends. "What are you grinnin at?" he mumbled. Never seen a man havin his breakfast?
Not one spreading honey all over himself and the bed, Buck pointed out as all in the room burst out laughing.
Giving a dirty look to his friends and narrowing his eyes, Vin groused, "I'll get y'all back for this some day!" Then he dipped his spoon in the oatmeal and started to eat. He was hungry.
Standing in the corner of the room, Chris smiled and, fighting the lump forming in his throat, he murmured, It feels so good to have the damn fool back!
Sure thing, Mr. Larabee sure thing, Nettie agreed, patting his shoulder.
FOUR CORNERS - THE SAME AFTERNOON
Royal entered the saloon and headed for the bar. He looked around and then asked Inez, "Any news about Larabee?"
The pretty Mexican barmaid shrugged, "No, Senor."
"Where are those hired guns?" the rancher wanted to know.
"No se, senior," she said quickly, not wanting Royal to know what had been going on.
Bring a bottle of your best brandy to my table," he ordered sharply.
Its ten bucks, Senior . . . in advance," she said, smiling.
"Listen little gal, you are talking to a prominent citizen of this territory. Don't play games with me," he threatened.
"No games, Senor. My employer wishes that everyone pay in advance for the brandy. If you still want it, I will bring your bottle," she said softly and waited for affirmation before turning away with a graceful movement.
Royal took a seat at a table, and was approached by a thin middle-aged man with rimless spectacles.
"Name's Conklin, Mr. Royal. I've got the information you've been asking for."
"I've heard of you, Conklin. Why would you want to help me?"
"I'm a lot like you, Mr. Royal. I don't want the likes of those seven men around, they bring only trouble. In any decent town, those men would swing for the things they do."
Mr. Conklin, I guess we are sharing the same concern about the future of our town. Please have a seat and let me buy you a drink.
The man paled and looked around, frowning. "No, those men have friends in here. Let's talk outside," he suggested.
As you wish," Royal said and rose to his feet. They exited the saloon and walked into the alley.
Whats up, Conklin? Royal asked impatiently.
"Well, I was at the undertaker's place yesterday and asked about the tracker's burial. He told me that Larabee had come and informed him that he had some unfinished business out of town and that the ceremony wouldn't be held. Then he told me that Larabee, Jackson and Mrs. Wells had all left in a wagon, heading to Larabee's place . . . and," he said, looking around, "I've heard talk that the tracker is still alive. Would explain Larabee's quick recovery."
It cant be true. I saw Tanners corpse at the ranch," Royal blurted out and then stiffened, biting his lips.
"Might be only gossip, but I thought you'd like to know," Conklin said. "Now I need to go, I have to live here, you know. Have a nice day." And with a slight bow, he scuttled away.
Cursing under his breath, Royal hurried to his horse, mounting it with agility unexpected for a man of his age, and rode out of town.
Couple hours later, Royal stood staring at the corral area where he'd last seen Tanner's "corpse". It was empty. No body anywhere. A streak of curses erupted from his lips and he knew that with the rain that fell this morning, no tracks would be found.
Slapping his hand on the top rail, he stormed to the bunkhouse, his anger building with every step.
Slamming open the door, he spotted Bill sitting on his cot, a half empty whiskey bottle in his hand. In two long strides, Royal was in front of the man. He grabbed him by the front of his shirt and hissed, "Where's the tracker?"
The drunken man blinked. We left the corpse in the corral, Mr. Royal.
And no one thought to keep an eye on him?
"The storm spooked the cows in the south pasture. We had ta herd 'em back and mend some fences . . . 'sides," he said, giving a shrug, the man was dead.
With a growl, Royal slapped the man, hard. "Then why isn't he out there now?"
"Don't know, Mr. Royal, I swear, I don't know," cried out the bewildered cowpoke.
"So you never did check on him at all?"
"I did, Mr. Royal. This mornin'. And he was plumb dead. I swear it!"
Whats going on?" a harsh voice said at Royal's shoulder.
Turning, Royal saw Top Hat Bob in the doorway. "After you left, I decided to kill that damn savage, so we buried him alive in Comanche fashion. My men," he said in a sarcastic tone, "told me he was dead, but now, I was just in town and heard someone say he could be alive. Got back here and no body . . . anywhere."
"Should've shot him," Top Hat pointed out.
"Damnation! He's trouble. Been watching us for weeks. He's seen you and probably put two and two together and it'll be the end of our business."
Cmon, Royal, who would believe a wanted man, a breed? You are a respected, good, wealthy citizen, after all.
"Yeah, well, he's one of Judge Travis' men and the Judge runs the territory. And that Wells woman escaped the fire and will be just as eager to testify in his behalf."
"Don't worry, Guy. We'll fix it. Any idea where they are at the moment?"
"Yeah. The gambler and preacher are escorting some prisoners to Yuma. The kid sheriff is in town and the others, at Larabee's place.
"Well, I'd guess that neither Larabee or that tracker will be any trouble the shape they're in, so we'll just pay them a little visit, tomorrow," Top Hat said, smiling evilly.
"Alright. See you tomorrow then," Royal said, leaving the bunkhouse and returning to his house.
That evening, Royal was instantly asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, but that didn't mean he didn't dream . . . A figure stood at the foot of his bed; a tall figure in a fringed jacket. There was a bow in his hand, aimed right at him. He could see the man's teeth shine white in a savage grin, the flaming tip of the arrow pointing straight at his heart.
With a cry, Royal, sat up, drenched in sweat. Blinking, he looked around. He hadn't turned down the lamp before going to bed and the light from it was casting a shadow on an old painting he'd "collected" from someone's ranch. It represented Robin Hood. Looking it over, he shivered. The man in the picture strongly resembled the tracker, Tanner. Abruptly, he rose to his feet and turned the painting's face to the wall. Going back to bed, he huddled under the quilts and fell into a troubled sleep.